Friday, April 2, 2010

(UPDATED 8:20 a.m., Monday) Top Ohio wildlife officials indicted, under state investigation

Several top Ohio Division of Wildlife officials were indicted by Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little for alleged infractions of law.

While the full scope of the indictments are still being reviewed by Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials, what is known is that Wildlife Division chief David Graham, assistant Wildlife Division chief Randy Miller, Wildlife Division law enforcement administrator James Lehman, Wildlife District 5 (southwest Ohio) director Todd Haines and the agency's human resource manager Michelle Ward-Tackett are parties to the indictment.

Each has been charged with one count of obstructing justice and one count of complicity to obstructing justice. These are fifth-degree felonies.

Also charged is Allan Wright, the state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County. He is charged with two counts of tampering with records (third-degree felonies) and one count of falsification for allegedly altering official Natural Resources records (a first-degree misdemeanor).

It is believed the indictments were issued late Thursday, though confirmation was hindered because the Brown County Prosecutor's office was closed Friday for Good Friday, said Mike Shelton, spokesman for the Natural Resources Department.

Shelton said the indictments stem from an alleged incident in which Wright was said to have allowed South Carolina wildlife officer Eric Vaughn to use his Ohio address in order to obtain an Ohio hunting license on Nov. 5, 2006.

A subsequent Ohio Inspector General's report - issued March 10 to the department and to Little and taking four months to assemble - recommended that the agency and Wildlife Division update its policies regarding suspected illegal activity and to review the actions of its employees in order to determine whether further administrative action or employee training is necessary.

The report noted also that on Sept. 30, 2009 the Office of the Inspector General "received a complaint from a confidential informant alleging criminal activity" on the part of Wright and "the failure of the (Wildlife) Division to investigate the matter."

On page 3 of the 17-page Inspector General's report the following was noted: "Allegation 1: Ohio Wildlife Officer Allan Wright assisted a South Carolina Wildlife Officer, Eric Vaughn, in obtaining an Ohio resident hunting license. Officer Wright also checked in three deer killed by Wright and knowingly recorded a false address for Vaughn," followed on page 5 after a detailed look into the allegations that "Accordingly, we find reasonable cause to believe a wrongful act or omission occurred in this instance."

However, the Inspector General's report on page 5 also said it didn't find "reasonable cause to believe a wrongful act or omission occurred" in regards to allegations that Wildlife Division officials issued a memo instructing its wildlife officers not to cooperate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's request for assistance.

Instead, these officers were instructed only to direct any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inquiry through the Wildlife Division's "Law Enforcement Supervisor for Approval."

Of chief concern to the Brown County Prosecutor's office and to the Natural Resources Department is whether the action of the Brown County wildlife officer should have resulted in potential criminal charges rather than administrative action, Shelton said.

A telephone message was left on Graham's home telephone seeking comment.

Further details will be provided as they become available. The Brown County Prosecutor's office will reopen Monday, Shelton said also.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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